Lance CPL James VethPHOTO: Lance CPL James Veth

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ  – When you see the smiles on the faces of the kids and adults coming into West Avenue Cutters to bring gifts for James’ Christmas tree, it helps to wipe away, or at least put in the background for a little bit, the grief of a mother who is left alone to observe her son’s birthday, his death, and Christmas, all within a two week period.

Lance CPL James Veth, son of divorced parents Jim and Debby Veth, died four years ago Dec. 12, of complications from Post Traumatic Stress syndrome, one of many injuries he suffered as a Marine in Iraq. His 31st birthday would have been this week, on Dec. 14.

Instead of celebrating his birth anniversary, or sitting home alone grieving over the 4th anniversary of his death, Debbi Veth was loading up a truck with toys, gifts, clothing and other goodies to bring to the James J. Howard Community Clinic in Brick.

That’s where LCPL Veth had spent a lot of his time, with the aid and assistance of advocate Jennifer Alonzo, before losing his battle for life. Debby had been there with her son as well, and praises Alonzo for the special person she is, and how much she does on a regular every day basis, to help the veterans at the clinic. Debby had seen and visited with other soldiers and sailors there who were suffering from the same illness as Veth, or learning to use prostheses, or overcoming whatever battles at home their war away from home had created. She knew some were veterans of the Vietnam war and other wars, she knew some did not have the luxury to provide Christmas as they would like to for their children or grandchildren.

So Debby, and her best friend Jennie Amici, owner of West Side Cutters on West Avenue, teamed up in a way James would have wanted.  Jennie put a tree up in her salon, posting James’ Marine Corps photo on top, and invited friends and clients to bring in gifts for the children of wounded veterans. Jennie saw it as a way of helping a friend she did not know how to comfort.

james tree1photo: Debby Veth, left with a friend dropping off a gift

It worked. Now in its second year, the James Tree at West Side Cutters is still the center of attention, still overflowing with gifts. Only this year there are even more. Amy and Gary Pederssen of Keyport belong to the Keyport Yacht Club. They mentioned the James Tree to friends there, and the club took up its own collection to give to Debbi’s veterans.

Jennie is so grateful to her clients and their friends who have taken up the James Tree cause. Her eyes fill with tears as she tells how struck she is by every single gift, since it’s obvious that large or small, they all come from the heart. Both women agree that while James will always be missed, while Christmas will always be difficult, while his birth date will forever have a different meaning,  inspiring and sharing gifts and joy with others is the best solution for a grief that will never fully go away.